Few can disagree that 2011 was a forgettable year for movies. One is reminded of the 1994 baseball season, which, owing to a crippling strike, was the first without a World Series. You almost wish that the Academy Awards could skip a year themselves. A rule change a few years ago expanded the field of Best Picture nominees from five to ten, and this past year, the Academy couldn’t even gather ten films worthy of the top honour – settling instead for nine. And none truly captured imaginations and inspired the affections of millions, or infected the zeitgeist like famous films gone by; the closest contender is The Artist, whose primary selling point is that it’s a silent movie done in the style of the 1920’s – an exercise in Hollywood nostalgia (or navel-gazing if one wants to be cynical about it), and appealing most to old show business insiders heartsick for the halcyon days of Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer. As a prime example of how low 2011 set the bar, the highlights of one of the performances nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids) is the character defecating into a sink. The Simpsons has a great word to express the apex of being unimpressed: for lack of a term more in the mode of the Queen’s English, 2011 in film was simply meh.
But this isn’t the place to whinge about how Hollywood never makes anything good anymore, because I don’t believe that’s necessarily true. They just seemed like they were having an off year – maybe they were depressed after the triumph of the Tea Party in the mid-term elections. 2010 offered some fantastic entries, including two personal favourites – The Social Network and The King’s Speech. Both were masterfully written, impeccably acted and crisply directed, and both were essentially about a shy and retiring person finding his voice (metaphorically in the former, literally in the latter) and forcing the world to hear it. It remained an open question up until Oscar night which of the two would emerge on top – ultimately the Academy opted for the movie with the more endearing protagonist, and The King’s Speech was thus crowned (interesting trivia note, it was the second movie in a row to win Best Picture featuring a performance by Australian actor Guy Pearce, after The Hurt Locker in 2009, even though in that one he gets killed in the first five minutes).
Visually, The King’s Speech is not as interesting as The Social Network, with its digital trickery in the portrayal of the Winklevoss twins by a single actor and the use of tilt-shift photography in a regatta sequence. Many of the shots in The King’s Speech are quite simple – medium and close-ups of the characters, slightly off-centre to indicate their lack of comfort in their surroundings and with others. But you cannot take your eyes away from the screen, because the performances and the writing hold you like a vise. As much praise as Colin Firth deserves for his role as King George VI, with his commendable choice not to overact the King’s infamous stammer and thus render it cartoonish, for me the real joy in the movie is Geoffrey Rush as speech therapist Lionel Logue. I have decided that Rush is one of those actors I can watch in anything. As much as everyone raved about Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Rush was the unsung star of that film, creating a complex character despite a thin script with just the right smattering of Robert Newton thrown in. Rush can even elevate dreck like Mystery Men with his presence. Indeed, without Rush, The King’s Speech never would have been made – in a breach of protocol, the script was dropped off at his home without going through his agent first, but Rush loved what he read enough to get things moving.
As mentioned previously, The King’s Speech and The Social Network are both masterpieces of screenwriting (indeed, they both won Oscars for their writers), but for very different reasons. The Social Network is Aaron Sorkin through and through; the cadences and references used by each character belong to that unique universe of his creation. David Seidler’s dialogue in The King’s Speech is equally remarkable, but for a different reason – how understated it is. Although regular readers know I admire Sorkin greatly, sometimes it’s difficult to imagine any real person speaking the way he writes them – people aren’t that quick, witty, off-the-cuff or as complex in the iterations of their arguments. By contrast, there is wit and sharpness in the words of The King’s Speech, but amazing economy as well – the script is a mere 90 pages and very little was excised in the final cut. The wit and personality of the players seems more natural; there is less sense of the screenwriter typing the lines. Seidler is letting the characters speak, he is not forcing his words into their mouths. For a movie about finding one’s voice, this choice is not only appropriate but adds to the realism of the story and deepens its emotional resonance. They say as much as, and only, what is needed. And the richness of what they do say makes you want to go back and watch the movie again and again. If it happens to be airing on any given day, I am compelled to sit and watch the whole thing – and I still smile when dear Bertie pulls it off in the end.
So far, 2012 does look to hold more cinematic promise – we have The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit and Skyfall all due to hit screens before the year is out. Perhaps we can consider 2012 to be 2011’s mulligan, its do-over. I’m hopeful as always, every time I sit back in the theatre and the lights go down, that I’m about to see the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. Sometimes, like with The King’s Speech, I come pretty darned close to thinking just that.